A League of Their Own

The Martin County Police Athletic League offers local kids a safe space to grow through multifaceted programs in sports, leadership, and more

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John Ruiz in the ring with PAL students Heaven Burns, 13, and Andrew Figueroa, 16. Photo by Paul Piasecki
John Ruiz in the ring with PAL students Heaven Burns, 13, and Andrew Figueroa, 16. Photo by Paul Piasecki

Sixteen-year-old Andrew Figueroa stands in the ring, feet spread, boxing gloves raised, and set to spar with former heavyweight champion of the world John Ruiz. Having the chance to learn from one of the world’s best is a rare opportunity, and the Stuart teen appreciates every minute of it. “He is a role model to me,” says Figueroa, who dreams of being a professional boxer one day. “Boxing has taught me discipline, self-control, and about being a leader.”

Figueroa is just one of hundreds of kids who have enrolled in the Martin County Police Athletic League (PAL), where they box, golf, wrestle, and drum their way to a brighter future. Founded in 2017, PAL teaches Martin County’s youth about teamwork, fitness, and leadership through a series of sports and empowerment programs. The organization was started by Palm City resident Noel DelValle, who had a vision after discovering the power of positive fitness at his own gym. “There was an empty space on Monterey Road, so I decided to open Twelve Rounds, a boxing and kickboxing gym,” recalls DelValle, 50, who was director of business development for Treasure Coast Irrigation at the time. “[At first], I just figured it would be an extra stream of revenue for me and my family.”

Martin County PAL founder Noel DelValle. Photo by Paul Piasecki
Martin County PAL founder Noel DelValle. Photo by Paul Piasecki

Before long, members were asking if their kids could come to the gym too. Familiar with the national PAL organization, which utilizes athletic programs to help prevent juvenile crime, he figured he would refer the parents to the local chapter—but he discovered there wasn’t one.

That’s when DelValle took a leap of faith and founded Martin County PAL, while still holding down his day job. In 2021, he left his former career to work full-time with PAL. “I realized I wasn’t put on this earth to do landscaping,” says DelValle of his decision to quit after 15 years at the Hobe Sound company.

Andrew Figueroa, 16, and Jake DelValle, 16, spar during class. Photo by Paul Piasecki
Andrew Figueroa, 16, and Jake DelValle, 16, spar during class. Photo by Paul Piasecki

Today, Martin County PAL operates out of a 3,800-square-foot facility in Palm City (after outgrowing its original Stuart location in 2020). The organization has expanded to include programs involving boxing, soccer, golf, wrestling, and even a drumline, which are open to all school-aged kids in Martin County.

The heart of the organization lies in two unique programs that have a lifelong impact on kids’ lives. Rebuild and Rise is a 16-week program for middle school–aged first offenders. These youths, who have gotten into some sort of trouble (things like smoking or vaping at school), are referred to PAL by the Department of Juvenile Justice, Martin County Health Services, and the School District of Martin County as a form of intervention so they don’t repeat the behavior and get into trouble again. “The goal is to give them 16 leadership principles to help them make better choices,” says DelValle, who also plans to start an anti-vaping program in conjunction with the school system. Rebuild and Rise involves 16 weeks of group sessions, each week focusing on a different principle. Kids work through exercises in a workbook and discuss what principles like forgiveness and self-worth mean in their lives. The peer-run program has been incredibly successful, with a zero-percent recidivism rate.

Marcello Garcia, 14, practices some moves. Photo by Paul Piasecki
Marcello Garcia, 14, practices some moves. Photo by Paul Piasecki

Sandra Graham, 19, is one of those success stories. The Port Salerno teen, who now works full-time at PAL, was mandated to complete a 16-week program after getting into trouble for smoking marijuana at school when she was 14. “It was rough,” recalls Graham, who says she was struggling with self-esteem issues at the time and arguing a lot with her family. “I did not want to be here, but after the second month, I was hooked.”

“Sandra came to PAL as a difficult youth,” says DelValle. “It was amazing to see the transformation in her over the weeks she was sanctioned to be here.” Graham now works with kids at PAL who are struggling just like she was. She says: “I tell them, it doesn’t matter why you are here. This is your fork in the road. Get on board now before you can’t make a comeback.”

Former world heavyweight champion John Ruiz is one of the boxing instructors who teaches kids at PAL in Palm City. Photo by Paul Piasecki
Former world heavyweight champion John Ruiz is one of the boxing instructors who teaches kids at PAL in Palm City. Photo by Paul Piasecki

For local kids who are not first offenders but just want help in dealing with issues at home, school, or personally, the same 16-week curriculum is offered through PAL’s iLead iChoose Me leadership program.

One of the more popular activities at PAL is the boxing program. Every week, 100-plus
kids come to the ring in Palm City to learn the sport from expert instructors—like former
world heavyweight champion John Ruiz. The 52-year-old Palm City resident had an impressive career as a professional boxer, holding the WBA heavyweight title twice between 2001 and 2005 and making history as the first Latino boxer to win a world heavyweight title. Ruiz was a member at Twelve Rounds, where he met DelValle, and volunteered to be a coach when DelValle decided to start PAL.

Naziyah Burns, 10, poses for a picture between workouts. Photo by Paul Piasecki
Naziyah Burns, 10, poses for a picture between workouts. Photo by Paul Piasecki

“I made a living out of boxing, but it’s a tough career,” says Ruiz. “We show the kids how to build a team and let them know it’s not an easy sport. You’re going to be nervous, but you have to have courage.” Ruiz says he sees the effects the program has on the kids every single day. “The change you see in each of them… I can’t put it into words,” he says. “These kids are becoming young men and women.”

The kids may not fully recognize what they are learning at PAL—but they know it’s a place
they want to be. “They’re like part of my family,” says 13-year-old Heaven Burns, a Stuart resident who has been going to PAL for three years. Burns says that in addition to boxing and golf, she gets help from PAL staff with her homework.

One of many inspirational quotes in the PAL gym next to an old photo of world champion boxer John Ruiz, aka “The Quiet Man.”. Photo by Paul Piasecki
One of many inspirational quotes in the PAL gym next to an old photo of world champion boxer John Ruiz, aka “The Quiet Man.”. Photo by Paul Piasecki

Stuart resident Marcello Garcia, 14, has only been going to PAL for a few months, but he already loves the experience. “Everybody is friends with each other,” he says. “I’m happy to be in that kind of environment.” Working with Ruiz has led Garcia to want to pursue amateur boxing. “[Boxing] has taught me to push myself,” he says. “A lot of times, you are tired or lazy, but if you push yourself, right after that you’ll feel so much better and you’ll be happy you did it.”

With more and more kids coming to PAL, DelValle is looking to expand its programs and space. In 2023, PAL served 550 kids, and DelValle expects 2024 numbers will well exceed that. He says he will soon be launching a capital campaign to raise money to build a new 10,000-square-foot facility on a piece of land the organization owns in the Golden Gate area of Stuart.

Marcello Garcia and Andrew Figueroa in the ring. Photo by Paul Piasecki
Marcello Garcia and Andrew Figueroa in the ring. Photo by Paul Piasecki

Last year, he was able to secure a grant from Impact100 to acquire a FedEx truck, which he converted into a PAL mobile unit. The bright green vehicle is outfitted with punching bags, a miniature basketball court, pull-up bars, ropes, and other gym equipment. A booming sound system and colorful lighting attract kids’ attention when the truck arrives at a location. The mobile unit gives PAL a broader reach, engaging kids who wouldn’t otherwise have access to

the organization. The truck visits parks in Indiantown as well as one school every weekday in lower-income areas of the county. School counselors say they have seen a noted uptick in attendance on days kids know the PAL mobile unit will be on campus.

Both the mobile unit and the potential for a bigger main campus are welcome expansions for an organization that is vital to the county’s youth. “Martin County PAL is one of our primary trusted resources for youths,” says Joanna Greene, human services supervisor for Martin County. “PAL integrates so many different ways of reaching them that they actually enjoy in the process. It creates an environment where they can discover untapped strengths and potential, developing leaders for the long run.” martincountypal.org 

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